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(LEAD) At least 40 N. Korean overseas workers dead amid worsening work conditions

2016/09/20 16:24

(ATTN: ADDS more comments in last 2 paras)

By Park Boram

SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- At least 40 North Korean overseas workers have died so far this year in work-related accidents and suicides following greater pressure by Pyongyang on its people to send back more money, a report said Tuesday.

Workplace accidents in foreign countries like Russia, China and Angola, as well as suicides and diseases resulted in the high death toll, a report on human rights conditions of North Korean workers abroad showed. The data was exclusively obtained by Yonhap News Agency.

"Excessive labor, insufficient safety gear at the workplace and other problems have continued to caused a rise in industrial accidents among North Korean workers dispatched to foreign countries," a source, who provided the report, said. "Strict control, excessive exploitation of wages and inhumane treatment also fueled psychological pressure, resulting in suicide."

   The report showed a total of 13 North Korean workers employed in Russia have died so far this year.

One of the laborers who belonged to the North Korean external construction guidance bureau's Irkutsk branch in Russia died in an accidental fall at a construction site in August while two others were killed in a falling cargo elevator at another construction site in Tobolsk last month, according to the report.

Another Vladivostok-based North Korean national jumped to his death from his residential building after setting himself on fire in a suicide that was blamed on excessively hard working conditions, the report claimed.

The latest findings then showed a group of about 20 North Korean workers died of yellow fever in the Angolan capital of Luanda in March after they were dispatched to the African country without being vaccinated against the diseases.

In Kuwait, one North Korean worker died of a heart attack after complaining about high blood pressure and related symptoms for about a month without getting proper medical attention.

The reported deaths reflect worsening conditions for overseas laborers as the North has become increasingly dependent on its overseas workers for foreign currency earnings which is vital for sustaining the regime and its nuclear weapons program.

As North Korea's foreign currency earnings were hit hard by international sanctions the regime has recently increased the amount of compulsory contribution a North Korean branch official in China must pay the regime every month from US$100 to $300, other sources with detailed knowledge on North Korea said

In another sign of change, North Korean overseas laborers who in the past were only expected to make financial contribution to the regime on a voluntarily basis are now required to pay $30 per person every three months. The change occurred from the second quarter of this year.

Currently, about 58,000 North Korean laborers are working in around 40 foreign countries including Russia, China, Kuwait, Qatar, Mongolia, the UAE, Angola, Poland, Malaysia, Libya, Oman, Algeria, Namibia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Belarus.

"Given that the 58,000 workers earn about $1,000 every month per each, the annual sum of earnings by North Korean overseas workers stands at $690 million," the sources said. "Suppose that the North Korean regime takes 80 percent of the total sum as contributions, then the regime's foreign earnings from dispatching overseas workers amount to roughly $550 million per year."

   Responding to the report, foreign ministry spokesman Sun Nahm-kook said the North Korean overseas workers issue has been a source of international concern in terms of foreign currency flowing to the North Korean regime as well as human rights violations.

"It's hard to discuss it in much details, but North Korean overseas workers are toiling in very dire working conditions," Sun said in a regular briefing, adding that the government will continue to seek ways to respond to the issue in cooperation with the international community.

pbr@yna.co.kr

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